I read this essay
about five early Don Pendleton novels, featuring Stewart Mann rather than Mack
Bolan, written by DP devotee, all-around great human, and terrific writer
Stephen Mertz a few years ago. Steve was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here. The books are difficult to find, and maybe even harder is trying to
filch a decent cover scan or two. And if you find these books, take pity and send a few to me.
I was in need of some light reading, and so just finished
one of Don’s earliest books, a Stewart Mann, private eye novel called The Hot One (1966), written as by Stephan Gregory.
It was a hoot and if you haven’t yet sampled the Mann series
(there were five books), you owe yourself a glance at another side of Don that
he rarely (understandably) revealed in the Bolan novels: he was one funny
dude. I’ll always remember his warm
Arkansas chuckle. The Mann novels are
cast in the Shell Scott/Carter Brown style of sexy, breezy, funny, hard-hitting
short mysteries that were popular in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, The Hot One totally holds its own in
the Prather level of ribald detective fun.
This isn’t the voice Don used in his Joe Copp private eye
books, by which time he’d firmly carved his own distinctive writing style, but
is that of an enthusiastic young writer stretching his muscles for the main
event (Bolan is three years away, remember).
But there is foreshadowing of the big guy to come. Towards the end of this book, Mann has his
moment of despair and considers bailing when he has a chance, but Don has him
reflect, “Bug out, Mann, bug out. And I
started to. But I knew I’d spend the
rest of my life feeling like a whipped pup.
I did care about the people involved.”
But about the humor: as this is a “sexy” 1966 paperback,
most of the funny stuff are witty asides about this gal or that; my favorite is
when Stew and a chick are trapped and it looks for sure like they’re gonna die,
but when she sees Mann, she starts touching up her face. Don writes, “I watched idly, marveling at
that creature called woman. At the gates
of hell a woman would ask Lucifer for a comb and lipstick.” The plot is the purest hokum,
seat-of-the-pants plotting with holes big enough to drive the War Wagon
through…and I loved every word.
Well, almost every word.
A few caveats are in order if this series sounds interesting
enough to you to go on-line in search of it.
The ones to start with are The Insatiables and Madam Murder, which were
published exactly as Don wrote them. The Hot One and The Sexy Saints were “spiced up” with about 10 pages of graphic sex
(written by the editor) scattered throughout each book. Don was a romantic writer and these passages
are easy to spot in their crudeness (and easy to skip over). More problematic is Don’s wonderful naming of
Mann’s self-destructive sex impulse: ol’ creature. Just when everything is going hunky-dory for
Mann, on a case or with life in general, ol’ creature stirs. Stew got booted from the Marines for doing a
General’s daughter. Kicked off the cops
for doing the captain’s wife. It’s a
great literary device. Well, in Saints
and Hot One, ol’ creature becomes ol’ baldy.
Which I think is hilarious.
Whenever the subject came up in conversation, Don invariably repeated
the new name, rolled his eyes and there was that soft Arkansas chuckle again.
The only Mann to avoid is The Sex Goddess, which is
incomprehensible through no fault of Don’s.
The book was over the word-length so the editor arbitrarily deleted
three consecutive chapters from the middle of the book. Yowza.
Upon finishing The Hot One, I found myself leafing through
my correspondence with Don from when I was just a writer-in-the-making—a year
from my first professional sale, two years from my first book sale. I had initially written Don a straight up fan
letter, and waited awhile before letting on that I nurtured dreams of a writing
career. In a letter to me dated 24 March
1974, Don wrote:
“I could have guessed that you too
are a writer. Keep at it. Nobody ever said it was easy—and I’ll let you
in on another little truth. The more
“successful” you get, the harder “it” gets.
I used to knock out those Stephan Gregory books in 5 or 6 days and never
feel a pain. Now I pace the floor and
sweat blood to get 8 or 10 pages a day.
But it’s all worth it, so hell keep at it.”
Thanks, Don—for Stewart Mann, and for the advice.